Corolla gets refreshing
Mechanicals are unchanged, but design is sound


Saturday, July 1, 2000

BY ALAN VONDERHAAR
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Corolla
Toyota Corolla
        You can get a 2001 Toyota Corolla ­ just now hitting dealerships ­ for $13,000, freight included, and that's a terrific value for a reliable, good-looking compact sedan.

        Or you can indulge yourself and make a dealer smile by pushing the price toward the $20K mark ­ at which point it's a much more dubious proposition, because all you've added are "luxury" and "eyewash" items, without greatly changing the essential nature of the car.

        Lots of luck finding a strippo CE series, which probably is a loss leader. It gives Toyota a nice number to advertise, if not much profit for the factory. (The dealer has a $1,112 markup to play with, according to Kelley Blue Book.)

        Car lots are more likely to be populated by the sporty S series and the more lavishly-turned-out LE.

        The real hot tip, if you're working with a tight budget and not particularly fashion-conscious, is to find a marked-down 2000 model languishing on a dealer's lot. The 2001 model has been given a very pleasing facelift, but is, under the skin, much the same vehicle as before, part of the eighth-generation Corolla rendering, which was introduced here in 1998.

        I find the restyling job quite skillfully done; most of the attention was given the grille and front bumper areas. They were cleaned up and now make a bolder, sportier statement.

        The car Toyota lent for evaluation was a Sport series. Base suggested retail price on this one with five-speed manual transmission is $12,793, which includes about $1,400 for the dealer. With automatic, it starts at $13,608.

        The S, in addition to the script "S" decal on its rear end, has other advantages over the base CE. It has fog lamps, full wheel covers, intermittent wipers, 185/65 tires on 14-inch rims instead of the slightly smaller 175/65s, color-keyed rocker panels, door handles and grille, simulated leather-wrapped steering wheel, red illuminated instruments with tachometer and outside temperature gauge, dual, instead of single, rear cupholders, and a cassette deck in addition to the same four-speaker AM-FM stereo as the base model.

        Hear anything there about engine or suspension modifications? No, you weren't napping ­ there aren't any. Sport in this case means sporty-looking, even unto a laughable rear spoiler which is available as a stand-alone for $499 (!) or as part of an accessory package.

        All Corolla series get the same smooth and eager 1.8-liter four-banger engine, with twin overhead camshafts and variable valve timing. All are front-drive unibody machines with independent front and rear MacPherson strut suspensions and fore-and-aft anti-roll bars.

        The chassis is essentially unchanged, so we must await the ninth generation for the level of rigidity that is now becoming common. I could feel some flexing over rough roads, and there were a couple of mystery rattles, too. Even when called a Sport, the Corolla isn't particularly fun to drive, although it is competent enough and sufficiently predictable to be a good choice for a novice driver.

        The test machine had the optional (roughly $1,000) four-speed automatic transmission. (With the CE series, the option is for a 3-speed auto, not a very charming proposition). It's electronically controlled, and although no particular claims are made for its "intelligence," it shifted smoothly and quickly. I felt the internal ratios were geared more for economy than responsiveness, however; unless I ran the engine all the way to redline, a distinct slump was perceptible on upshifting. Top gear is overdrive, and worth about 30 mph per 1,000 engine turns.

        The engine makes 125 hp at 5,800 rpm. Torque peaks at 125 foot-pounds, at 4,000 rpm. You might deduce, correctly, that the engine is happiest when humming. Unfortunately the driver doesn't have a great deal of control over that with the automatic, unless she chooses to stir the gears, making the five-speed manual a better choice for those who wish to eke out some sportiness. Thanks to the sophisticated variable valve timing, though, the automatic doesn't feel too constrained. Best I could manage in the 0-60 drill, without putting undue stress on the drivetrain, was 10 seconds plus.

        Overdrive off is effected via a switch on the console-mounted shifter, and its invocation is heralded with a reasonably bright indicator amid the instruments.

        EPA estimates for the Corolla with automatic are a creditable 30 mpg city, 38 highway. I treated the green car a little more gently than usual and got 34.7 mpg for my forbearance.

        I had enough room behind the wheel for both legs and head, although getting into the car required modest contortions thanks to its modest height and the narrowness of the portal. The back seat ­ equipped with three seat belts ­ is typically compact but does fold down 60/40 to enlarge upon the 12.1-cubic-foot trunk.

        The Sport series has unique red instrument markings. This is not one of Toyota's best inspirations. They're fine at night, when illuminated with white light, but rather hard to see in the daytime, especially if one is wearing green or brown sunglasses, and basically unpleasant to behold.

        The headlamps, though hardly xenons, were commendably bright and tightly focused. The fog lamps were not particularly helpful.

        The stereo system produced fine clear sound when fed a proper level of input; the FM section was frequently complaining that it wasn't getting enough signal.

        Corollas have ventilated front disc brakes and drums on the rear axle. I found stopping distances reasonable and pedal feel satisfactory. I did not try the simulated panic stop routine because the tester had less than 100 miles on the odometer and brakes should have a more gentle initiation.

        The 2000 Corolla got four-star ratings on the government's frontal crash test for driver and co-pilot protection. It was bettered by the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, Mazda 626, Saturn LS and the VW Golf and Jetta, to name a few competitive offerings.

        Consumer Reports predicts better than average reliability, and its readers rated the '98 Corolla as above-average in every maintenance category.

        Corollas are assembled in California and Canada, alongside the very similar Chevrolet Prizm.

        The specimen sacrificed on the altar of journalistic enquiry started at $13,608. To that were added an all-weather package ($70), composed of a heavy-duty starter motor and rear seat heater ducts; a heavy-duty rear window defroster ($205); a CD player, $315; tilt/slide moonroof, $735; aluminum wheels, $355; a convenience package (cruise control and tilt wheel), $450; a "value package" (air conditioning, digital clock, power windows and locks, dual powered outside mirrors), $1,800, and the "special elite package (floor and cargo mats, wood-tone dash, gold emblems and rear spoiler), $899. To make you feel better about some of those pricey fillips, you get a "package discount" of $565.

        Total price, with freight, was $18,312. I'd give up the spoiler and gold kit in a second for the optional antilock brakes, unfortunately offered only on S and LE series. They cost $550 as a stand-alone option.

        ASK AL: AWD or 4WD for escaping winter?

       Alan Vonderhaar welcomes email at avonderhaar@enquirer.com and snail mail c/o The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202. Because of the volume of mail received, personal replies are not always possible, although your chances are better with e-mail.

        VONDERHAAR ARCHIVE